On a rainy, foggy night earlier this month, a New York City taxi driver making a left turn at a light apparently did not see my 9-year-old nephew and his 6-foot-3 father crossing the street at a crosswalk, beckoned by a lighted “walk” sign. Whether because of haste, inattention, cellphone use or perhaps the poor weather conditions, the cab driver drove directly into them. My beloved nephew, Cooper Stock, died instantly. His father suffered minor injuries. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office is investigating the circumstances of Cooper’s death.
The first question everyone asked after Cooper was killed was whether the driver was drunk. The police reassured my brother-in-law, Dr. Richard G. Stock, who was holding Cooper’s hand at the time of the crash, that a Breathalyzer done at the scene was negative.
Yet merely looking for alcohol or drug involvement by the driver misses the point. During the first 12 days of 2014, cars killed seven pedestrians, including Cooper, in New York City. More attention needs to be paid to the reasons behind these fatalities. Were they true “accidents”? Or was careless behavior on the part of drivers the reason seven people lost their lives?
Reckless driving, circa 2014, is what drunk driving was prior to 1980: it is poorly defined in the law, sometimes poorly investigated by police and almost never results in a criminal charge. A recent story in The New York Post reported that at least 21 taxi drivers have killed or injured pedestrians or bicyclists in New York City over the past five years and only one has been charged criminally. Most received only traffic violations and paid a fine.
The recent spate of pedestrian deaths at the hands of motorists has spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio to start a major new program called Vision Zero. The Mayor announced plans to increase the number of traffic cops, create a specially-trained collision investigation team, install speed cameras and form a high-powered Vision Zero panel with the goal of eliminating traffic-related fatalities in New York City.
While I support the initiative, I also understand the many pitfalls Vision Zero is likely to encounter. As the author of a book on the history of drunk driving, I know that efforts to criminalize drunk driving were long stymied by a cultural indifference to the problem. Well into the 1970s, police and prosecutors looked the other way, seeing drunk drivers either as diseased alcoholics, young men sowing their wild oats or, paradoxically, victims themselves, even if they killed or maimed people. Judges and juries — perhaps because they, too, secretly drank and drove or knew those who did — were reluctant to convict.
Police told family members that their loved ones — the actual victims — had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Crashes were called accidents.
Things finally changed in the 1980s when Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) burst on the scene. Members of these groups had often lost children at the hands of drunk drivers, many of whom had several previous arrests and no convictions. These parents were viscerally offended when they learned that killers were allowed to plead down to traffic or parking violations.
This activism affected a sea change. Drunk driving is no longer seen as youthful folly but a serious crime. Between 1980 and 1985, states passed more than 700 laws lowering the acceptable blood alcohol level and tightening loopholes. “Friends,” we were told, “do not let friends drive drunk.”
Perhaps the most important lesson learned was that drunk drivers were still responsible for the damage they caused, even though the harms they inflicted were unintentional. Driving drunk, critics said, was like walking around with a loaded gun.
The carnage caused by reckless driving, like that caused by drunk driving, should also be viewed as criminal. We do not yet know all of the circumstances of Cooper’s death, but we know the tremendous loss we all feel in his absence. Cooper was a wonder. Everyone loved him. He was obsessed with basketball — especially the Knicks — and had an encyclopedic knowledge of N.B.A. stars back to Wilt Chamberlain. But mostly he was just a joy, “the life of the party even when there wasn’t a party,” to quote a family friend.
If Cooper died because an impatient or distracted driver made a careless decision, then that driver should be as guilty of a crime as someone who drank alcohol or used drugs before driving. Let’s make destruction caused by irresponsible driving a true crime. And let’s do it soon. Last weekend, after the launch of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, three more pedestrians in New York City died, struck by cars as they were crossing the street.
Originally published in The New York Times • January 24, 2014